Muck Over Menthol

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The New York Times printed a really interesting story today about the coziness between the Congressional Black Caucus and the tobacco industry and how that relationship is playing out in a controversy over a potential ban on menthol cigarettes.

Philip Morris over the years has been one of the biggest contributors to the caucus’s nonprofit Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. That financial support, in some years exceeding $250,000, and lesser amounts at times from other cigarette makers, has been the reason some critics perceived an alliance between big tobacco and African-American members of Congress, some of whom were willing to help fend off antitobacco efforts.

Among them, some critics have said, was Charles B. Rangel of New York. Although he supported some antitobacco initiatives, until the last few years Mr. Rangel staunchly opposed federal tobacco tax increases. He has said his stand was based on the disproportionate effect of excise taxes on the poor, not the thousands of dollars he received in tobacco industry political action committee donations.

Some caucus members have always seen tobacco money as a Faustian bargain and refused to take such donations, urging their colleagues to do likewise. One of them, John Lewis of Georgia, once told a reporter, “People are reluctant to criticize the giver, to bite the hand that feeds them.”

Black lawmakers who maintain strong tobacco industry ties include James E. Clyburn, who represents a tobacco-growing region of South Carolina and is majority whip of the House. Last year, Altria, the parent of Philip Morris, donated $50,000 to an endowment he established at South Carolina State University, a historically black college.

The donation to James Clyburn’s endowment at South Carolina State University is of particular interest mainly because these are the types of influence-building contributions that fly under the radar. There isn’t any dislcosure requirement for entities that are connected to a member to which corporations can donate. Recent controversies have swelled over contributions to the Reform Institute, a non-profit connected to Sen. John McCain, and the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York, affiliated with Rep. Charles Rangel.

The article is worth a read to see how influence takes place outside of typical channels like campaign finance and lobbying.

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  • Dem02020

    These kinds of stories have a discouraging effect on people who show interest and concern in their American Democracy: it makes you wonder just who (if anybody) in Congress, is not under the influence of money and lobbyists.

    Truly, how many of us go about our jobs, and at the same time have people lined up to sit down with us for a few minutes, and tell us how much they’d appreciate our help, and that in return they’d be delighted to lay $50,000 here or $100,000 there, toward some cause or project close and dear to us (perhaps so close, that some of that money winds up in the pockets of our friends and family, and maybe even ourselves).

    It’s discouraging to think how widespread an effect this kind of lobbying and contributing might be having, on the making of the Laws that affect us all.

    Think outside the box for just a minute.

    By almost any sensible and honest standard, you must admit, that in America today, Congresspersons are grossly underpaid for the responsibilities they have and the jobs they do.

    [It is here that most of the reactionary throw-the-bums-out off-with-their-heads antagonized and anti-government mob would say “Overpaid? If they got nothing at all, then that would be about fair for what the bums do!” But that’s just pure anger and even hatred talking there.]

    The fact of the matter is, that thousands of Law School graduates every year, will make more money in their second or third year in their legal careers (maybe even in their first year), than do those people we elect to actually write the Law and to be our Lawmakers.

    True.

    As a matter of fact, any competent (and somewhat busy) Trial or Corporate Lawyer in America today, makes two or three or more times as much money, as do those who actually write and make the Law itself. Powerful and influential Attorneys make ten times more money (and much more than that), than do Congresspersons.

    And I won’t even say much about corporate executives in America today, other than to say that there’s not a single Vice President of any Fortune 1000 Company in America (and that’s thousands of executives referred to there: more than a dozen at companies like Coca-Cola or GM) who are paid or would ever work for as piddly a sum of money, as do our U.S. Lawmakers earn for the infinitely more important work they do.

    And Doctors? I’m under the impression that Doctors are the highest paid professionals as a group in America today, with surgeons and anesthesiologists leading the way.

    Professional athletes? There are over a thousand Major League Baseball players working this summer, today as we speak, and every last one of them makes a minimum MLB salary of $400,000 (that’s just the minimum, and for seven months work).

    The point (and ouside the box): we need to bump up the pay of Congresspersons two-fold three-fold and maybe five (and even ten-fold is not out of the question)… and I know, I hear the Congress-haters screaming already, but wait: at the same time, we ban them from taking a single dollar in contributions from any lobbyist or any private business interest: not a single dollar or a single gift or any paid trip or even a free lunch.

    The problem is that serious: Congresspersons (who make the Laws that govern all of us and all of America) are grossly underpaid for the responsibilities they have and the job they do. Measuring themselves against other professionals in America (especially Lawyers), they know themselves to be underpaid, and have their hands out constantly because of it.

    Madonna or Steven Spielberg or Will Smith or Paul McCartney, each makes more money than does the entire Membership of the U.S. House of Representatives and the entire U.S. Senate combined: what is it those entertainers do, that is as important and affects all of us in America, as is the Law and those who write it?

    Greatly increase the pay of our Lawmakers, many times over: forbid them under criminal penalty, from then ever taking money from lobbyists and other private financial interests, who seek (and succeed) in corrupting our Lawmakers and influencing our Laws.

    Almost anybody who can just get over their Congress-hatred for a minute, and think outside the box, will probably agree that this might fix that money problem: a problem which causes discouragement to an interest or participation in, our American Democracy.